SKINNERS by -- Jerry Roth
Darkness fell in the small Ohio town of Pataskala. Josh moved down the stairs to the front of his building. Tracy Witmar’s murder did more damage to Josh than the papers could ever reported. His trust in strangers took the hardest hit. The knowledge that a bloodthirsty, maniacal, murderer still walked the street and was breathing the same air as him was chilling. A large man wearing a plaid flannel shirt walked, slowly toward him. The stranger treading closer appeared dirty, perhaps from a hard day’s work of killing, Josh thought. Josh folded his hands into a fist, tightened his frame, and prepared for the conflict ahead. Josh’s eyes drew a line to the stranger. The man walked past, oblivious to Josh’s apprehension, with no recognition in his expression. Josh relaxed his body, air escaping its bonds. Shaken by the experience, Josh looked back to the corner, searching for his mystery woman. The corner was empty, absent of her, and ominous. You’re cracking up, he told himself, as he began walking down the dimly lit street, slowly through the center of town.
Josh walked past a flower nursery, lifted his head, and closed his eyes, taking in all the smells. The aroma immediately took him back, back to days more carefree when a flower given on a first date could make Tracy smile, and cause his stomach to flutter.
Tracy Witmar moved with the comfortable ease of a cat that stalked its prey. She picked up a lily from a pile of others and dipped her nose into the petals. She inhaled the flower, averted her eyes away from Josh, and waited, patiently. Tracy gave him a smile; one she never delivered on a first date, and raised the lily to Josh.
“Would you like a smell?” Her smile increased. Josh leaned in, sniffing the offering.
“Beautiful,” Josh said, looking directly toward Tracy. He wanted to touch her, hold her, to possess her with more intensity than he had ever felt. He saw her as angel, something unobtainable. Josh walked backwards with Tracy following.
“So how do you think this date’s going?” Josh asked. Tracy’s face exploded with her smile.
“I don’t know. I think you have a lot more work to do,” she said and touched his hand with a gentle caress. Josh changed the subject, not wanting to press his luck any further.
“So, what do you see in your future?” Josh asked. She took a moment, thought about the question, and answered slyly.
“I hope to find the right guy, or at least the right man for me.” Tracy smiled brighter at Josh, “maybe have a child with my husband’s eyes, and live happily ever after of course.” Tracy paused. “How about you?”
“I’m not sure if I’ll be fortunate enough to end up with an amazing girl like you, but I would love to come back and see that happy ending in person some day.”
“Don’t be so pessimistic. I’m not planning a wedding just yet, but you’re on your way Josh Sterling,” she said. Josh felt all the love in the world in that moment; he fell in love and swore he would spend the rest of his life with her, with Tracy forever.
He remembered the way her blonde hair fell into her face, the delicate way she would brush it from her eyes, and her smile. A smile that was frozen in time just for him, it was the smile that caused him the most agony. Out of sight out of mind never applied to his love for Tracy. Josh was lost in the memory of her mischievous grin, she’s right there in front of him again. Under normal circumstances, he would have avoided the mental focus on her, but the sorrow seemed distant, like a clap of thunder far away. He’s surprised by how much better he feels when Tracy crossed his mind. His hope, almost as strong as the wish, to have Tracy back was to travel beyond the darkness that wrapped itself around him? Josh entered the edge of the main strip of town that contained music stores, sports pubs, and The Weathered Copy. If he had a favorite store, if such a thing was possible it would be this one. The store seemed to Josh to have every obscure title a young mind craved. The owner, Marge Rendell, a stocky woman with a hairstyle trapped helplessly in the sixties, never once showed any parental authority over the content of Josh’s requests. He loved her for that and knew deep down that she valued the written word just as much as he did. She would smile at the boy, comment on the weather, and wait patiently for the topic of Marge’s daughter Karen to unnaturally come up. The change of conversation never surprised Marge. She would just say, Karen is fine; I’ll let her know that Josh says hello. If there had been a woman more brilliant at dealing with an indelicate subject change, Josh never met her. She never pried into Josh’s constant interest of Karen; Marge allowed the conversation to die naturally without shame. Josh heard of Marge’s passing several years ago and that Karen had taken over the shop. It was a discovery that made Josh simultaneously sad and happy.
The abandoned textile factory creaked, shimmied, and seemed to sway from a powerful breeze that swept through its rusty innards. Floors and ceilings were missing on several levels; walls were bare from intruders scavenging the factory’s insides for the precious copper pipes, which yield a quick buck. A campfire burns bright in a back corner of the factory’s second story while rats scurry from side to side around the warmth of the fire, and try to build up confidence to approach the stranger’s fire. The stranger, John Simon, was a worker of the very same building he now calls home. He’s a big man with a beard that’s grown down to the middle of his chest. They hung loose, stitches stretched, fitting his body in an uneven way. John poked at the fire with a broken piece of wood, watched an ember fly into the air, and rekindled the flames before throwing more wood on top of the red embers.
The wind began to pick up, forcing John to wrap his clothes around himself tighter. Nearby newspapers swirled into a pulp-tornado, rising and diving, presenting a mesmerizing show. John watched in amazement as the paper spiraled faster and faster, staring dumbly. The campfire erupted sparks of embers, wind whipped red fireballs into John’s face, and he frantically wiped the burning debris from his eyes. Walls shake, and lurch with sounds of bending steel rising all around the factory. John cleared the ash from his sight, noticed the wall take on an unusual appearance, like the sheetrock was made of light. He rubbed his eyelids, returned his gaze, and saw the wall melt, like glass heated to a liquid state. “Holy hell!” John screamed, feeling the noise grind from his throat as the creaking of the metal became deafening. He covered his ears, squinted at the wall of light, it shimmed like fire. He backed away, a dark spot formed in the middle of the fire; the sight paralyzed him into place. The dark spot grew larger, compelling him closer to the black center, opening his eyes wider with an object protruding from the blackness. A shape appeared, receded, appeared once more, and then became recognizable to John as a hand. The hand grasped for him, stretching outward, tearing at the air while John backed away. A white apparition sailed from the wall, a pale hand floated in mid-air before another match appeared connected to a figure. The figure slowly revealed himself, first in a black robe with a hood, and then by the flowing bottom that scooted across the cement. The cloaked-being raised his head, released a scream so violent that John once again covered his ears from his fury. The Man in Black’s howls began to fade away leaving the factory in an eerie silence. “Who are you?” John asked, almost choking on the words. The apparition came to life and turned to the guest in the factory, his black rope, used to cinch the robe, dangled back and forth. The white creature moved through a rough opening in the wall with mind-numbing speed, causing John to run carelessly for the staircase, to slide down the railing, and hit the ground hard in a panic. John didn’t look back; instead, he headed for a door fifty feet in front of him, and then stopped to listen. There’s no sound but the rasping, guttural, wheezing of his own heavy breathing. He spun around, the room was empty, but he wondered, for how long? Before paralysis could make itself known in his body, John made a mad dash for the exit. The figure was waiting. “Who are you?” The man with white skin, stood silent, still, and offered no answer. The pale man moved quickly, too quickly for John to see. The figure threw John to the ground with enormous force before he can act with any defense. The impact rattled his chest, knocked the air from him, and contracted several times to regain his composure as the weight of the stranger rested on his torso. A clear container appeared from inside the pale man’s cloak; John squinted to see the slight movement in the glass bottle. The contents inside the bottle became transparent because the shade of the white man’s skin matched the wriggling items inside perfectly. The figure turned the container’s lid, pried it open, and lifted it away. John struggled to make sense of what he saw, swatting at what began to crawl toward him. The pale man restrained John’s hands with seemingly no effort, pinning them under his legs. John outweighed his assailant by one hundred pounds, still, he couldn’t move. The container, tilted, patted lightly, and emptied onto John’s chest. Hundreds of tiny, worm-like creatures crawled along his skin. The insects showed no apparent features except large fangs that extended from one end of their white, translucent bodies, and black eyes that folded into their skin. Worms crawled toward John’s neck, leaving slimy trails, and forcing a scream from him like a man scorched by fire.
“What are they?” John received silence. The worms fell in line one behind the other, like hunting dogs that had just caught the scent of prey. “Will this hurt me?” John half-spoke, half-wept.
“Without end! They are family to me, soon they will become a part of you.” The insects furiously squirmed into John’s nose. John screamed, allowing more worms to crawl inside, his eyes opened wider.
Josh hesitated as he walked into the bookstore and breathed in the musty odor of aging paperbacks. Books of every shape and size lined the tiny establishment. Josh side stepped a rack of magazines and found himself in the section that ruled every waking moment for most of his life, physics. The books were like old friends. Even the manuals containing cold theories that, he alone could prove inaccurate, were like mystery novels, those waited to be unraveled.
“Hello there, stranger.” The voice startled Josh from behind. He made an abrupt turn, nearly slipped, and knocked down a stack of books. Scurrying to pick up the books, he lifted his head, Karen Rendell stood over him. Josh tried to talk, but the words grew thick in his mouth. The brown haired woman in her late thirties leaned in closer to Josh. Her face was beginning to show signs of age, but she still held the features of the girl he knew in his youth.
“Please, don’t tell me I’ve been forgotten in that big city you escaped to,” Karen said. Josh nodded and cleared his throat.
“That’s unthinkable. I wouldn’t call Columbus a big city, and it’s only fifteen minutes away. You look…beautiful…as always,” he said.
Josh, half blushing, placed the remaining books in a stack, turned back to Karen, and flashed a smile. Karen helped Josh reclaim his books; they walked together to the register, savoring the moment.
“A little light reading?” Karen pointed to his book choices. “Quantum theories, Magnetic propulsion?”
“Something I was studying before…” Josh stopped and Karen felt pity.
“I heard…and I’m so sorry.” Josh nodded his head and mustered a smile.
“Have they found the person responsible?” Karen asked.
“Not a trace. He vanished as if he never existed.” Josh turned his head and pretended to notice something far more interesting across the store. She seen his discomfort and changed the subject.
“The total’s three fifty.” Grateful for the distraction, Josh handed Karen the money, and received the change without eye contact.
“Karen?” Josh asked.
“I was curious, would you like a drink, with me, tonight?” Josh was afraid she would see his true side, his drinking ritual of swimming in alcohol, his lonely side won out. Words swelled in his chest, a panic moment gripped, he found himself holding his breath, she finally spoke.
“I’m kinda short handed tonight…” Josh took a step back, already felt the rejection, he searched for the door.
“Don’t worry about it, some other time, maybe. It was a silly idea. I’ll talk to you later.” Heading for the door, he threw her an uneasy smile.
“Wait, Josh wait! I can meet you in an hour.” Karen offered.
“You don’t have to feel obligated,” Josh said.
“Josh, I want to, and I don’t feel obligated. How about Joe’s pub at ten?”
“Really?” Karen nodded. “See you then.” Josh continued to the door, trying to contain his happiness, it spilled out of him in a laugh.